Myth Trivia: Debunking, square meals and the whole nine yards

Myth Trivia: Debunking, square meals and the whole nine yards

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Dubunking the truth? A square meal? The whole nine yards? Where do those sayings come from?

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Aug. 19, 2015 – A little poetic justice in trivia today as we get our English “Wordsworth.”

1 – Debunking the truth: We all know when somebody says “That’s a lot of bunk” they are not talking about king-size beds.

The word “bunk” is a shortened version of “bunkum,” which dates to the 1820s. Not much has changed since then when politicians used exaggeration and lying to obtain press coverage that ultimately translated into votes.

Recognizing this strategy, a representative from North Carolina named Felix Walker warned his colleagues in Congress to be aware of any grandstanding that might take place by some of his associates using elaborate rhetoric in their orations.

As Walker put it, such speech was “intended only for the folks back home in Buncombe County, N.C.”

Hence the word “bunkum” which later became abbreviated to “bunk” as a means of expressing something that was a lot of “hogwash” or “baloney.”

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2 – Getting a square meal: The oft repeated origin of the expression “a square meal” is frequently used by tour guides who claim it derived from the practice of serving meals on square wooden plates to members of the Royal Navy.

While it sounds plausible, the word “square” has numerous meanings, and though the square plates did exist and were used, there are other more likely beginnings.

Most experts agree the phrase was coined in the U.S., with one of the earliest print references coming from an ad for the Hope and Neptune restaurant in the Mountain Democrat newspaper in California in 1856.

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice,” said the advertisement.

However, “square” can also mean honest which sends other usage of the word back as far as 1591,when Robert Greene wrote in “Defence of Conny Catching,” “For feare of trouble I was fain to try my good hap at square play.”

Shortly after that, William Shakespeare used a derivation of the word “square” in 1606 in “Anthony and Cleopatra,” “She’s a most triumphant Lady, if report be square to her.”

In fact, “square” is quite popular in many idioms such as “fair and square,” “square play” and “square deal.”

If you are looking for a “square meal,” however, the Hope and Neptune restaurant in San Francisco was the first place to offer one.

Now back to “square one.”

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3 – And that’s the whole nine yards: Contemporary logic would tell you that this phrase probably came from American football.

Actually, “the whole nine yards” is three yards shorter than the original expression, which was featured in a headline in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina in 1921. The headline was “The Whole Six Yards of It.”

The phrase appears to have had its beginnings around 1907 in Kentucky and South Carolina as a substitute for the term “the whole ball of wax.”

Some experts believe the number six later changed to nine due to its close relation to another expression “to the nines,” which designated perfection.

Oddly enough it was not until 1967, during the Vietnam War, that the phrase captured national attention in a novel by Elaine Shepard called “The Doom Pussy.” Even then, it did not generate widespread use until the 1980s and 1990s, when writer William Safire of the New York Times became fascinated with it and wrote no fewer than nine columns on the subject.

Adding to the weirdness of the derivation is the earliest known use of the phrase from the Mitchell Commercial newspaper in Indiana in 1907. It was strange because it referred to the sport of baseball rather than football.

“This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards,” said the article.

Safire became so fascinated with the subject that he even asked listeners to the Larry King radio show in 1982 to submit any information they had regarding the phrase.

Little did Safire realize he would be inundated with a voluminous number of explanations, including machine gun belts from World War II, cubic measures for concrete mixers, lengths of fabrics from Indian saris and Scottish kilts, volume of graves, the length of bridal veils, a ritual of disembowelment and sails on full-rigged ships, among others.

Take your pick, the choice is yours, but for today “that’s the whole shebang.”

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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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